In The Land of The Green a Bolt From The Blue

In a farmhouse in rural Ireland in the early 1960’s the importance of fuel could not be underestimated. The fuel itself was something of an enigma, a left over from another age, peat! Dug from a piece of allocated bogland that people would cut for themselves. It still remains in some very small way but these days modern Ireland prefers to buy processed turf in clean compressed brickettes from the local shop than spend months working it on the bog.

To a farm smallholding it was needed all the year round. A large stack of turf built beside the house would keep the permanently burning open fire or range glowing. Everything from a cup of tea to the spuds for the pigs and the hens were cooked over the eternal peat fire.

I had spent the day alone, wheeling out turf on the bog. It was a day in late summer in the bog by the foothills of the Ox Mountains in Co. Sligo. That warm summer’s day in 1964 was cooled by the almost permanent breeze that wafted gently over the open landscape. Midges had kept me company most of the day and each time a dry sod of turf was moved they rose to attack yet again. The wheelbarrow I had been given to use was unfeasibly heavy. Made of wood, green with algae and made heavy by the damp conditions, being left out in the open all year. The wheel was an old spoked car wheel off something like a Morris 8 of pre-war vintage. Without a load the wheelbarrow was heavy enough to tax all but the most determined. With a load of wet sods of turf it was something of a challenge. It was a challenge as a fit young lad I was happy to rise to.

The day of toil was broken up by lighting a fire with dry turf and cooking a bit of bacon and egg for lunch, whilst boiling a pan of bog water for tea. It wasn’t until about 6 o’clock in the evening that my uncle Edward appeared in his grey Ford 100e Anglia to collect me.

Photo by Lwkoester via Creative Commons

Photo by LWKoester via Creative Commons

We drove slowly along the bumpy rough metalled track and the early evening late summer sun was still high in the cloudless blue sky. As we bumped along chatting about the day’s achievements, I was quick to spot something that I had never seen before.

I shouted, “look”!

A great burning ball of fire came out of the blue sky, hurtling towards us in a low trajectory. Coming at us at great speed and in what must have been no more than three or four seconds it shot past us to our left before crashing into a wet bog.

We paused in the kind of pregnant silence that awaited our astonished response.

“What was that”? said my 14 year old voice.

There was another pause after which Edward said, “I think it was one of them thunderbolts. I’ve heard about some kind of ball lightning like fork lightning only in a ball, but I’ve never seen it before”.

We were both as amazed as each other, Edward was in his early twenties and I thought of him as a man that knew most things, but clearly he was struggling for an explanation. For a long time afterwards I sort of accepted his offer of ball lightning, but the experience never left me and today, over fifty years later, I can still see that ball of fire hurtling from the sky.

These days I believe that what we saw was probably a very small meteorite that was of significant enough size not to burn up completely on entering Earth’s atmosphere and by the time it hit the ground would have been the size of a pebble.

Why do these things happen on a remote bog in Ireland and not in Trafalgar Square causing mayhem, injury and panic, I ask myself? Remote places like the Antarctic are where you find small meteorites lying on the ice, or large flat surfaces like a salt lake or even a desert.

Meteorites are part of some distant asteroid or possibly even a comet that has broken away after a celestial collision some place out in the universe. They could be part of a distant planet that has been hit in a larger collision possibly thousands of years ago, where the debris has flown off into space. Whatever their origin, most of this interstellar gravel burns up and disintegrates as it enters our atmosphere, but some contain enough matter to survive the entry and make it all the way to the surface of Earth. They make the nightly spectacular that we call shooting stars. Easily visible in the unlit skies of the country, but hidden by the light polluted sky in our cities. The smaller bits burn to nothing in the upper atmosphere.

Photo by jsjgeology via Creative Commons

There have been something like 40,000 finds of these things since someone started counting, but since that unforgettable event a second sighting has eluded me.

Peat is no longer cut in Ireland on a significant basis, although some people still have their own piece of bog to work. Maybe another ball of fire has been seen out in the loneliness of the bog?

No known collisions with a London bus have yet been reported, but who knows? Someday, somewhere, there may be one out in space with your name on it.

Meteorites can be seen in the London Geological Museum, now part of the Natural History Museum which at London and UK Taxi Tours we can recommend as one of London’s great free attractions.

Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here.

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